cinematic universes

No One Should Be Surprised That Star Wars: Rogue One Is Having Problems

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(Ben Mendelsohn)Ph: Film Frame©Lucasfilm LFL
Photo: Lucasfilm

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (last April, in Anaheim), Gareth Edwards got on stage and told an audience that his now-embattled Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, would be a war movie: “It’s called Star Wars … It’s about the fact that God’s not coming to save us, and we’re on our own. The absence of the Jedi is omnipresent in the film. It hangs over the whole movie.”

In those innocent days before Star Wars: The Force Awakens became a behemoth, Edwards’s comments were exciting. Refreshing, even. He was suggesting that Lucasfilm’s Star Wars cinematic universe would be one in which directors were actually able to direct, to put their artistic imprimatur on franchise films instead of just coming in, coordinating a galaxy’s worth of moving parts, and then calling cut. This latter approach, of course, has been used to great success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for viewers unenthused by Marvel’s catalog, that movie-making strategy has become mundane to the point of exhaustion. Why did we need 13 movies that feel exactly the same? Why do we need another nine-plus?

The answer is obvious: Because they make money. And, for most audiences, they satisfy a desire to see a familiar world unfold at great length and depth in a manner that seems consistent, like television. Sure, if you don’t care about that world, you’re on the outside looking in, but our contemporary moviegoing climate, that’s a minority view. Captain America: Civil War doesn’t need you.

But here was a director saying, “No — this’ll be different,” and you had to believe him. Anyone who sat through Edwards’s Godzilla knew that he was a very different filmmaker than J.J. Abrams, the wisecracking nerd maestro. Abrams’s movies are upbeat and athletic, faithful to the monomyth and steeped in the traditions of what came before; Godzilla, meanwhile, was a humorless, awe-inspiring spectacle of destruction, a Wagnerian pop epic that dispatched with character development and human touch in favor of the Freudian death drive. On the level of big-budget helmers, it would be difficult to find two individuals more different than Abrams and Edwards.

So, good news, right? Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm couldn’t possibly force Edwards to mimic Abrams, which meant he’d be free to make the movie he wanted: Star Wars as the Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan. Both Lucasfilm head Kennedy and senior vice president Kiri Hart have suggested that the anthology films would be not only filmmaker-driven but genre-oriented. But in December, Kennedy said a seemingly innocent thing that, in retrospect, seems like an enormous red flag: When Slashfilm asked Kennedy if Rogue One was a “heist film,” she said, “It is, to a certain extent.”

Now, Slashfilm put that suggestion in Kennedy’s mouth, and she merely affirmed it, but war movies and heist movies are … not the same. Apocalypse Now is a war movie. The Italian Job is a heist movie. While there are certainly exceptions, these genres tend to widely diverge in tone and temper, with war movies heavier and darker than heist movies, the infidelity drama to the heist’s rom-com.

Whether the difference in these Edwards and Kennedy quotes is semantics or an ominous sign, it appears that this distinction has become significant. Earlier this week, Page Six reported that early test screenings of Rogue One did not go over well with Disney execs, and as a result, reshoots would be conducted under the watchful eye of the Mouse. Following the story, The Hollywood Reporter wrote (emphasis mine), “The move is happening after execs screened the film and felt it was tonally off with what a ‘classic’ Star Wars movie should feel like. The pic has not yet been tested before audiences, but one source describes the cut as having the feel of a war movie.”

You don’t say.

“The goal of the reshoots will be to lighten the mood, bring some levity into the story and restore a sense of fun to the adventure,” THR added. They could’ve just said, “The goal of the reshoots will be to make a Gareth Edwards movie feel more like a J.J. Abrams movie.” Lucasfilm liked the idea of allowing gifted filmmakers to follow their muse, but when that actually happened, they had the realization that Kevin Feige anticipated from the start: Gifted filmmakers typically make movies that feel distinctly their own. When those movies need to live in the same universe, that’s not an asset: it’s a fissure.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Lucasfilm got spooked by Batman v Superman, and Edwards’s film was just too gritty for the tastes of a post-Zack Snyder world. Or it could be terrible! Who knows. But it’s hard to keep Edwards’s Godzilla in mind and be at all surprised by these reactions. His version of the historically campy Japanese monster plays up its origins as an allegory of nuclear apocalypse. That film has more in common with the Book of Revelation than it does classic Star Wars, and then Edwards literally went and said he was going to make a war movie. And still he (reportedly) faced shock in the halls of Disney, because the instincts to allow directors free rein and to create a shared world in which they live are not only contradictory, but negating.

It’s one thing to have five different filmmakers take on Mission: Impossible, a franchise whose major through lines are Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and a theme song. It’s another to try and link together movies featuring different characters, settings, and emotional poles. Feige knew that for the MCU to feel consistent and overlapping, the separate entries would have to make up for their differences with a similar style and visual feel, and that may be what Lucasfilm is discovering now.

Regardless of what happens with Rogue One — Christopher McQuarrie, who contributed to the script, has fiercely denied rumors that he will help direct the reshoots, but Entertainment Weekly reported that Lucasfilm has brought in Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton and Bourne fame, to write new dialogue and work as a second-unit director — it feels like this could serve as a compelling argument against future efforts to widely diversify the feel of cinematic universes. And with universes becoming the common language of cinema, prepare for a lot of movies that feel very, very alike. The absence of the Jedi is going to be omnipresent.

Of Course Star Wars: Rogue One Has Problems